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TV catches the Net video bug

In a role reversal, TV producers are searching the Web for hot videos.

Dirty secret or not, the Web has long been a platform for downloading and watching pirated clips of television shows like "Lost" and "The Simpsons," much to the chagrin of the television networks.

But now TV producers are turning the tables, creating new shows around video clips culled from the Web.

Bravo TV is among the pioneers of the genre. This week, it began airing a new half-hour series called "Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Video," a show featuring the most popular video shorts circulating the Net, including parodies of the gay-cowboy movie "Brokeback Mountain" and clips of President George Bush's many verbal faux pas. It could be likened to a digital-age version of the old bloopers TV shows.

News.context

What's new:
TV producers have begun searching for videos produced and distributed by Internet users.

Bottom line:
The producers' search on the Web for marketable videos--and the ubiquity of broadband connections and video hardware and software--underscores the convergence of the Internet and traditional media. Compared with financing a regular television series, culling material from the Web is a relatively inexpensive way to develop programming.

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USA Networks, Fox and NBC are producing similar programming in the coming months. And ABC News Digital plans to enhance its television news program by drawing on video captured by viewers using cellular phones.

"No one can say this is a niche genre, because my mom is e-mailing me (Internet) videos, as is my nephew," said Andy Cohen, vice president of programming and production for Bravo TV, a unit of NBC Universal.

The Internet-inspired programming is yet another sign of the long-anticipated convergence between the Web and traditional media. Now that viewers, particularly young audiences, spend more time online on average than with any other media, TV producers are hunting for new programming that will play on the Web's popularity while redirecting interest back to the tube.

It's happening now for a combination of reasons. Broadband in American homes is stoking demand for media-rich entertainment online. Low-cost video equipment and editing software are making it easy for people to create their own short films or mini-features. Emerging services from Google, Brightcove and others are delivering the tools to upload, circulate or even sell video online. And TV networks now want to help deliver a mass audience for that video during prime time.

For TV producers, it's simply a cheap way to develop a show. In the classic model of programming production, content producers would invest a lot of money upfront to create a pilot show and test it with audiences. By patrolling the Internet, TV producers can draw on material that's already proved popular with online audiences and put it on TV with comparatively little investment.

"It's almost as if networks have cheap labor now for creating new shows and concepts," said Tim Hanlon, senior vice president of Starcom Mediavest Group, a Chicago-based advertising agency.

In an increasingly fragmented media environment, content producers also need to invest more broadly to create "lots of little hits in different genres," said Adam Gerber, vice president of advertising products and strategy for Brightcove, an Internet TV services company. "They also have to have a way to invest more efficiently," he said.

USA Networks is looking to attract younger males to its cable network by broadcasting a show of shocking videos from the Web. In recent weeks, USA said that it plans to air a one-hour pilot, created by Fox Television Studios, based on eBaumsworld.com, a Web site of extreme videos submitted by users, according to the companies.

It's a coup for eBaumsworld's creator, Eric Bauman, who as a New York high school student in 1998 built the site to post secret audio tapes of teachers provoked into yelling. The show will feature similarly offbeat videos culled from the Web. It will also air interviews with nonprofessional video subjects who will be asked to account for their outlandish behavior.

USA plans to broadcast the first show in the fall of 2006 and pair it with its late-night World Wrestling Entertainment program.

In recent weeks, ABC News also introduced an online service devoted to collecting viewers' video that's been captured by multimedia-equipped cell phones. ABC collects and edits video from the online service, which is called "Seen and Heard in America," so that it can incorporate it regularly into shows like "World News Tonight" and "Good Morning America."

To be sure, some TV networks have been melding the Web with their programming more and more in recent years. Various TV programs, like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," have encouraged viewers to answer polls or vote online, for example. ABC News had already tested the use of user-generated video within various news shows, including those that featured coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and proved that the model worked for a full launch.

What's different now is that networks are taking advantage of the popularity and ease of viewer-generated video for their own shows.

"We're always looking to put our fingers on the pulse of what's going on in pop culture," said Bravo's Cohen. "This was the next natural step."

Other video clips on Bravo's show included the popular East coast rap spoof on "Chronicles of Narnia" first aired on "Saturday Night Live."

Cohen said Bravo's legal department vets the narrated show to obtain the proper licenses from video creators so that the network has rights to air clips. Though it's doubtful anyone is getting rich from the permissions, nonprofessionals may be paid for their work in some cases, he said.

"We are in a major hunting expedition," Cohen said. "I just e-mailed the producer two new videos this morning."

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